Cheat Sheets of the Brain, and Evolution’s Guessing Game

Feb 2, 2013


Discussion by: Zeuglodon
At present, I find most persuasive the philosophical notion of monism, which is the notion that the brain’s activity is not just correlated with consciousness, but effectively is consciousness. From what I can tell, there’s currently no evidence to support the notion that consciousness is something independent of brain activity, while there’s ample evidence from neuroscience that they’re one and the same. As much as it’s still an open question, I take this stance for the same reasons I take the atheist stance; the other side makes a weaker case that isn’t epistemically justified.

You may be wondering what this has to do with the title, but bear with me for a moment. Despite my position, I wonder why it still seems at least intuitively natural to treat the reds, greens, blues, yellows, blacks, and whites of my experience – my qualia, if you insist – as something separable from the hyper-complicated supercomputer circuitry that is my nervous system (and the amazingly sophisticated simulation software it runs). Come to that, how does the brain see the unseeable, and translate a 2D photon scattering on my retinas (or worse still, a series of 1D signals sent down the optical nerve after the fact) into a 3D model that matches the world near-perfectly? According to reverse optics, it’s an impossible task.
Now, I don’t have the technical solution to this problem, like the design specifications of the brain’s visual lobes, but based on a suggestion taken from How the Mind Works by Steven Pinker, at some point the brain uses a cheat sheet. This is basically information already built into the brain that corresponds with the outside world. The only convincing explanation for how it got there is that the mutations arose that resulted in brains that held a variety of ideas about how the world works, and the ones that weren’t whittled out by accidental death or failure to breed happened to best match the environment they found themselves in. Natural selection, in other words.
I don’t know about you, but I get chills at this point. What this means is that what I see, hear, smell, touch, taste, and all the rest of it, is essentially the outcome of a series of random guesses – note that the alleles produce the brain’s design specifications before the result meets the outside world – that were more useful in navigating the world, rather than being necessarily a perfect replica. In a sense, my entire experience is one big guess that just keeps being coincidentally true enough to be useful. Even more interestingly, this applies to our intuitions as well, such as those about plants, animals, tools, everyday problems, society, and other people.
Dualism, and by extension monism, enter into all this in the following way. A human brain, in addition to having the usual tools for deciphering the world via the sense organs, contains built-in intuitions about other minds. Obviously, a brain can’t handle every bit of information about even one other brain, never mind about a whole suite of individual brains that it shares its environment with. So it has a cheat sheet – a shorthand program that allows it to capture the minimum number of properties about other brains while still being practical enough to work – and this manifests as the intuitive idea of dualism. In short, the ghost in the machine (chained or not chained to the brain) – the soul, the self, the spirit, consciousness, mind, anima, ghosts, agents, invisible beings, gods, devils, the “we” who make the choices, all that lot – is essentially a simplified stand-in for the mechanistic brain.
(By the way, a notable side-effect of this is that such dualist entities are treated as atomistic and belonging to a magisterium separate from that of physical or chemical entities. By atomistic, I mean that people aren’t usually invited to reduce their dualist entities to simpler parts like a machine or a body could be. The very idea is virtually never raised. This could make for an interesting talking point about some religious and moral ideas, but I’ll keep on topic for now.)
Of course, this comes at a price. Such a brain finds it easiest to embrace dualism, not because this intuition is dead-on accurate, but because a brain closer to monism – i.e. one that treated brains as hypercomplex machinery and attended to all the more accurate details of neuroscience – would have been more expensive to produce, and rival brain designs that were more economical happened to be selected for. Another bizarre byproduct is that our dualist intuitions would be strangely nebulous, since all the neuroscientific information of the brains being modelled would necessarily be missing. Also, since our evolved ethical emotions would have coevolved with any model of the minds of others, while such an ethical faculty would have been wasted on models for intuitive physics, this even explains to some extent the moralistic associations of dualism, and why epithets such as soulless and mindless evoke such moralistic horror as they do. It also explains why the evolutionist understanding of humans as genetically programmed survival machines is rarely met with a warm welcome.
I don’t mean by all this that dualism as a hypothesis is thereby discredited, though it should make its advocates think twice about appeals to intuition. In fact, the implications for the cheat sheet idea strike me as being the take-home message here. The history of science is characterized by bizarre new paradigms wrestling against intuitive theories – heliocentrism versus geocentrism, the classification of humans as either animals or something distinct from animals, evolution, quantum theory – and perhaps this accounts in part for why some people find science strangely alien, if not outright unappealing. Yet, ironically, their down-to-earth intuitions are themselves strangers of the truth – shorthands and cheat sheets installed by an imprecise guess made long ago by genes.
I think this cheat sheet hypothesis is a fascinating idea that needs exploring. What other intuitions could be approximations, and how did they manifest in our theories about the world? Any speculations?

23 comments on “Cheat Sheets of the Brain, and Evolution’s Guessing Game

  • 1
    Jos Gibbons says:

    I wonder why it still seems at least intuitively natural to treat the reds, greens, blues, yellows, blacks, and whites of my experience – my qualia, if you insist – as something separable from the hyper-complicated supercomputer circuitry that is my nervous system (and the amazingly sophisticated simulation software it runs). Come to that, how does the brain see the unseeable, and translate a 2D photon scattering on my retinas (or worse still, a series of 1D signals sent down the optical nerve after the fact) into a 3D model that matches the world near-perfectly? According to reverse optics, it’s an impossible task.

    My understanding is it’s achieved by combining the signals from both eyes, which is why those who can only see with one eye have poorer depth perception (a joke occasionally made in Futurama at Leela’s expense). As for why the colours are real, our brain labels regions of our vision based on how they interact with light, which is a fact about them. You can, for example, notice that two “red” things interact similarly, and that a “red” thing and a “violet” thing do not, and that one banana is riper than another.

    What this means is that what I see, hear, smell, touch, taste, and all the rest of it, is essentially the outcome of a series of random guesses – note that the alleles produce the brain’s design specifications before the result meets the outside world

    By that logic, whether a method of homeostasis keeps our internal body temperature stable or not is a matter of dumb luck. Except, of course, that isn’t how natural selection works. When a new mutation arises, its effect is random in the sense it’s not correlated with fitness on average. (However, mutations have a calculable regular rate of occurring in a population.) But the filtration effect of natural selection means modern bodies are built by genes that do the job very well. This isn’t dumb luck; it’s inevitable. That’s why evolved designs (e.g. genetic algorithms) save industries billions of dollars a year.



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  • 2
    QuestioningKat says:

    At present, I find most persuasive the philosophical notion of monism, which is the notion that the brain’s activity is not just correlated with consciousness, but effectively is consciousness.

    Is it a philosophical notion or would neurologists and neuroscientists agree that this is what consciousness actually is?

    Let me see if I understand you correctly in simplistic terms. Our brain interprets visual, tactile, auditory, etc. information by developing schema which allows the person to interpret what they see. Round, green with a stem, about 3 inches in diameter, a certain smell, speckled skin with a certain waxy feel —–It is a green apple. The brain makes a note of this grouping of information so that the next time you encounter a green apple, you no longer need to analyze each detail of it. It pulls out a shortcut that instantly says “green apple.” The brain will do this not only with objects but situations and personalities of other people. In essence the brain naturally creates stereotypes or a file that groups information and slaps a label on it for us to understand the world quickly and effortlessly. If you see something out of the ordinary that doesn’t fit the labeled category, the brain is alerted and tries to fit it into another grouping or schema. this may cause anxiety and bring up the need to defend oneself or wrongly attribute the cause. Another option is to see the schema as foreign and coming from an outside source whether it is good or evil – just a way to make sense of the unfamiliar and process it so that their internal thought process isn’t saying “tilt” “tilt” tilt” “does not compute.” Many of us simply cannot tolerate the uncomfortable situation of existing with the unknown or unfamiliar. It makes us itchy and scratchy, so we search for an answer that appeases this need. This process of making labels opens the door for others to attribute sources to something outside of itself. If that is what you mean, I highly agree with this.

    but because a brain closer to monism – i.e. one that treated brains as hypercomplex machinery and attended to all the more accurate details of neuroscience – would have been more expensive to produce, and rival brain designs that were more economical happened to be selected for.

    I would imagine that someone who was hyper aware and highly analytical to all details of life would be limited in social situations and less likely to respond quickly to dangerous situations. There would probably be less of a spontaneous flow of interacting with the world and others. Instead of running from the sound of rustling in the grass, the hyper aware, analytical person would spend more time contemplating on what all the possibilities of the sound could be. Standing there staring at the grasses with out grouped information of the cause….unless the person lived safely in a group, they were probably picked off from the gene pool.

    This is basically information already built into the brain that corresponds with the outside world.The only convincing explanation for how it got there is that the mutations arose that resulted in brains that held a variety of ideas about how the world works, and the ones that weren’t whittled out by accidental death or failure to breed happened to best match the environment they found themselves in. Natural selection, in other words.

    I think the process of us creating grouping or schema is naturally built in and a result of natural selection, but our actual schema or groupings are not set in stone. Education, information, and better analytical skills can improve our schema and change our opinions. How many people were anti-gay thirty years ago and changed their mind? Somewhere along the line they were exposed to more information that allowed them to form new ideas and create new groupings of thoughts. Some people are naturally able to create more complex schema than others so they are less likely to attribute the causes elsewhere. I think some people are more analytical and less reactionary hence they contemplate a situation more thoroughly. (without standing and staring at the grasses or their grouping is more complex mixed with higher learning.) For instance, if you have both a skilled realist artist and a novice artist draw an apple in front of them. The novice will draw their “ideal” or stereotype of what an apple looks like. It will likely not look anything like the apple that sits in front of them. It could end up looking like the Macintosh apple logo depending on how limited the person’s schema is. The skilled artist will ignore all schema and ideas that an apple is in front of them and will analyze the shapes, angles, pattern of lights and darks. She will notice the curve and length of the line that represents the stem instead of seeing the “idea” of stem. She will compare the subject to its surrounding to get more information. The novice would draw a cup with a round circle for the top because that is what they understand about the idea of a cup. The skilled artist would draw a correct ellipse because they acknowledge that the cup’s lip changes its angle as observed in space. Now imagine the response of people with a limited knowledge of a topic- say brain functions or Evolution. Can you see how they would apply their stereotypes to the situation? Add in arrogance, lack of self awareness, self-righteousness, etc. and you get one angry person. If you’ve ever watched responses of an unaware bad singer being booted out on American Idol, you get the point. People will respond the same way when confronted by those who have higher analytical skills, more advanced groups of schema, etc. Deny and fight back. Our personalities can get in the way, sometimes it’s a cover up of our lacking ability to see and understand our set shortcuts or cheat sheets.

    I find it challenging when people assume consciousness is from some outside separate source or they give credit to God rather than a person’s superior brainpower or talent. People seem to be perplexed when our mind thinks about itself, multitasks, goes into an automatic zen-like “flow”, hallucinates, or dreams. They assume any superior works cannot be created by humans alone. They assume life is like a “baked cake” or frosty the snowman. Yes we are a bunch of particles, chemicals, and “stuff” all mixed together and baked, but the activities of the machine are impossible without God blowing on the form to allow consciousness and brain activity. Why does this view exist. My guess is that it is because the person has not been exposed to information that is beyond their set idea of their existing scheme that they learned or created years ago. To change the schema requires work to relearn and the humility to recognize that they were wrong. As a personal note, I was a deist before I was an atheist. I couldn’t let my personal experiences or set schema go. I falsely attributed the cause of many situations because I was using old schema in order to understand the experience. I started to look into work by Dennett and better understand how my brain processed information and “connected the dots” to understand two unrelated situation. By educating myself to understand logical fallacies, biases, poor perception, I was able to build new schema that enabled me to recognize these faulty thought processes when they would occur. …and yes, I even created cheat sheets for them.



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  • 3
    maria melo says:

    “The history of science is characterized by bizarre new paradigms wrestling against intuitive theories”

    (or “epistemological breaks” in Bachelard’s terms for whom we learn against errors…. or scientific revolutions/discontinuity in knowledge…also that our knowledge sheds light, but has it´s own shadows).

    I don´t think I quite understand the “monism”. I suppose science tests the world objectively and “independently” of our intuitions, although our “intuitions” -or at least first intuitions-, because intuitions are necessary for creative means (but it still is dualism I think), nor is it possible to have knowledge without a subject as Piaget would put it (contrary to a Marxist epistemology that states that, the material world determines ideas”, nor idealist where ideas and reality are almost the same… well, the contour of a pure philosophical discussion, although science has too much to offer about both: our hardware/software and our own way to learn and the world itself ?

    By the way, don´t we know that color is not only a property our vision, but it may be a chemical property of matter itself, besides the limits of our own vision?

    I am not sure if I understand the whole idea of the OP, and it´s idea of monism.

    I think this cheat sheet hypothesis is a fascinating idea that needs exploring. What other intuitions could be approximations, and how did they manifest in our theories about the world? Any speculations?

    I´ll take time to read S. Pinker, as the OP made me curious about the term “cheat-sheets”.



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  • 5
    Zeuglodon says:

    In reply to #1 by Jos Gibbons:

    My understanding is it’s achieved by combining the signals from both eyes, which is why those who can only see with one eye have poorer depth perception (a joke occasionally made in Futurama at Leela’s expense).

    That’s not what I meant. Allowing that the signals come from two optic nerves, that simply increases the amount of data sent along two narrow channels. It doesn’t explain how the brain interprets it as seeing a 3D model, because information about depth doesn’t come automatically with the signals. We literally see just colours and shades. The brain has to organize the rest into objects, and interpret that blob over there as a human face but this blob here as the carpet.

    >

    As for why the colours are real, our brain labels regions of our vision based on how they interact with light, which is a fact about them. You can, for example, notice that two “red” things interact similarly, and that a “red” thing and a “violet” thing do not, and that one banana is riper than another.

    Yes, but a lot of that information has to be present already in the brain, or else it couldn’t know what it was looking at. Nothing about the fact that two red blobs are next to each other means that the brain must interpret them as the same thing, because a huge number of alternative interpretations are possible, and the brain might simply not interpret it as anything at all but keep seeing meaningless splodges.

    That’s where the cheat sheet comes in. The genes build in the information already, so that the brain locks on when certain patterns emerge to a model that’s more likely. Even more interestingly, the brain locks on when certain patterns emerge to a model that’s more useful. The reason it has to be useful is because the body will likely cause harm to its chances of reproduction and survival if it gets it wrong.

    The implication is that a lot of things that seem intuitively true to us – such as the notion of dualism – may actually simply be useful models that cut corners rather than actually inform our neuroscience. It isn’t limited to consciousness either, as most of science’s history involved breaking down barriers between things that were once treated as separate magisteria – the distinction between celestial objects and chaotic Earth, for example, was contested by Newton when he proposed that the same forces act on stars and moons as act on falling objects on our planet.

    What this means is that what I see, hear, smell, touch, taste, and all the rest of it, is essentially the outcome of a series of random guesses – note that the alleles produce the brain’s design specifications before the result meets the outside world

    By that logic, whether a method of homeostasis keeps our internal body temperature stable or not is a matter of dumb luck. Except, of course, that isn’t how natural selection works. When a new mutation arises, its effect is random in the sense it’s not correlated with fitness on average. (However, mutations have a calculable regular rate of occurring in a population.) But the filtration effect of natural selection means modern bodies are built by genes that do the job very well. This isn’t dumb luck; it’s inevitable. That’s why evolved designs (e.g. genetic algorithms) save industries billions of dollars a year.

    Of course, I know that. I thought it was clear from the OP that I didn’t mean natural selection was a random process. However, both homeostasis and our intuitions are the surviving mutations that started life simply as random changes in genes – hence “guesswork”. The lucky guesses were the ones that didn’t die out after meeting reality – that’s natural selection. I hope this clears up the misunderstanding.



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  • 6
    QuestioningKat says:

    The genes build in the information already, so that the brain locks on when certain patterns emerge to a model that’s more likely.

    Not sure about this Zeug, I would say that genes have the information processors built in but not information. Please clarify



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  • I think it was in Pinker’s book about how visual processing modules enables us to perceive movement, even when it hasn’t ‘really’ occurred. Examples being video images which are really a succession of slightly different photographs presented at high speed.

    Same thing happens with audio processing as the location of a sound source moves relative to the ear to enable spatial processing of the environment. So it’s possible to see and hear in stereo with spatial depth perception even with only a single eye or ear, based on the elements in the environment changing position relative to the sensing organs. Losing an eye or an ear would diminish depth perception, but doesn’t eliminate it. Possibly losing an eye doesn’t even diminish depth perception much – it just means that there is less scope for error correction in spatial processing. Presumably many animals can smell with stereo depth perception despite having only a single nose. Similar to how people and other animals signal puzzlement, interest, or alarm by tilting their heads. (Slightly shifts the position of the eyes and ears relative to environmental signals, including sound, light, scent.)

    We humans seem to be unusually interested in bad news. Presumably humans possess elaborate cheat models handling processes involving social cooperation, which we rely on totally for our representation of social reality. These cheat models are likely to be relatively recently evolved and potentially much more fallible than for visual processing. So we may also have evolved cheat models which keep an eye on our other cheat models by continually checking for glitches where our social models fail.

    Physical reality and social reality are distinctly different. You would expect that people wouldn’t often be inclined to exercise their cheat models for detecting the failure of cheat models that process routine physical phenomena. But it’s exploring the occasional anomalies that reveals the existence of these models. So maybe instinctive aspects of the scientific approach, like forming hypotheses, controlling variables, making comparisons, and trying out different things, are themselves a form of cheat model for cheating the cheat models.

    Seeing as our genes can’t possibly code for the intricacies of all the required cheat models then it seems more likely that the basic form that gives rise to the cheat models must be coded for genetically, plus a mechanism of cheat models that identifies and resolves anomalies among various cheat models. Some kind of layering of cheat models. What we perceive as our own consciousness just being the topmost level of whatever cheat model anomaly detectors are paramount at any instant.

    Perhaps that’s why very young children are natural scientists as they progressively grow their complex set of mental models of their physical and social environment. Young kids, or any social mammal were the juveniles play, exhibit the kind of curiosity that is associated with scientific research. Maybe there’s some kind of neotony effect found in some adults who fail to mature mentally and are therefore condemned to remain scientists all their lives, even to the extent of professional specialisation.

    When cheat models process physical reality visually it’s sometimes possible to absolutely definitely see a tree aggressively and recklessly jump out and hit an innocent car being driven along the street. (Insurance claims sometimes include this as an explanation for accidents!) The reason is that when the mind is distracted (typically via mobile phone conversations – the cause of most vehicle accidents, a fact only recently established now that most police organisations investigating accidents now have ready access to mobile network data) aspects of higher level visual processing are suspended even though most of the actually seeing and categorising of objects and scenes continues unaffected.

    Normal seeing is sufficient to enable routine driver navigation. Though sometimes drivers will unknowingly slow down to match their spatial processing capabilities when distracted by phone conversations. If you see someone driving unusually slowly chances are they’re on the phone. Though not always. I’ve seen women driving over the Sydney harbour bridge at normal highway speed during rush hour while simultaneously texting and applying makeup. The instinctive need for social engagement and approval apparently outweighs any consideration of the risks to life and limb. Though it’s probably less dangerous than it seems as the heavy traffic means that sudden stops and starts are totally expected – therefore probably don’t need to be carefully scanned for. (It’s the unexpected that causes the problems – like a pedestrian stepping out, or another car swerving lanes without indicating.)

    There can be some kind of a processing backlog that accumulates when crucial mental modules are otherwise occupied in spatial processing tasks – such as interpreting audio data as to the position of the other party in the phone conversation. As an indication of the extent of this routine spatial processing: people to this day remain surprised when a phone conversion has low latency, low distortion, even frequency response, and relatively low loss despite the other party being thousands of kilometres away. Almost to the extent that phone companies may have to introduce some distortion to ‘fake’ the perception that the other party is far enough away to justify the exorbitant distance-related or roaming charges.

    Presumably there are only a few available cheat models to process spatial environments. Some spatial processing capacity must be consumed by the phone call. Estimating where the other party is spatially positioned during the phone call being assumed by our cheat models to be significantly more important than where one’s own car is positioned while driving at high speed on the freeway.) During this time the mind is effectively blind to spatial information involving anything that both isn’t expected and isn’t a known threat. E.g. cyclists are not a threat to motorists, while large semitrailer trucks are a threat.

    Cyclists which are automatically categorised as low threat cannot be visually processed, despite being perceived by lower level visual modules, while trucks are processed routinely as significant threats – even when the mind is distracted on a phone call. Cyclists can temporarily interrupt this low threat perception categorisation by attempting to appear sexy (if successful this might cut through all other considerations, presumably why cyclists feel compelled to wear lycra pants), or by wearing fluorescent clothing and mounting flashing lights. But once most cyclists do this then even bright clothing and flashing lights will no longer work to categorise cyclists as unexpected and potentially dangerous to motorists. Probably horizontal yellow and black striped clothing would work well indefinitely – making cyclists look like a wasp or other venomous creature should trip some very low level hazard perception cheat modules. Plus wearing an image of sharp teeth on their backs.

    Following a phone call when a driver’s attention reverts to routine visual scanning and an entity previously not recognised as a threat. E.g. A typical tree alongside a typical street, suddenly becomes a very real threat, owing to the car driver’s misdirected attention, then it’s possible our cheat modules may process the tree as having rapidly moved to attack the driver. Perhaps because our visual processing modules are optimised for an environment where our bodies move relatively slowly compared to predators. The backlog of accumulated data is presented rapidly, like a page-flipping cartoon drawing played back at much higher speed. When we as prey come into an unexpected and violent confrontation with a predator the built in assumption of our models is that the predator has charged in to the attack. Not that we have rushed to the predator eagerly to become food. The result is that we visually perceive the tree moving rapidly to attack us. Just as we visually perceive the succession of photographs making up a movie scene as a smoothing flowing event in real life.

    Sometimes people driving vehicles at highway speed also experience a related sensation of the road rushing towards the vehicle while the vehicle appears to be stationary.

    Some examples of social cheat models, or where they obviously fail, can be found in economics.

    Price discrimination is a crucial aspect of economic behaviour. Yet it is frequently considered unfair and morally anathema. There are often laws imposed to control or eliminate price discrimination. This might be an example of a cheat model that works well for the assumptions associated with prehistoric social life, but which fails in the occasional unusual circumstances of modern civilisation.

    Another is hoarding, speculation, and especially price gouging and profiteering associated with major emergencies and social disruptions. Price discrimination and profiteering are essential economic system responses to emergencies but which are generally regarded as wicked and evil, and are punished accordingly.

    So this is an example of a mental model of morality and socially acceptable behaviour that would likely be very effective in an emergency relevant to the prehistoric world, but which conflicts violently with reality in our modern environment of extremely complex and integrated civilised infrastructure and large populations.

    So when very bad things happen, typically as a consequence of our cheat models failing to conform to social reality, this activates other cheat models and we become quite interested in these examples of bad news. Though we presumably have even further social cheat models that compete to prevent us from learning much useful from these events.

    Often the public reaction of outrage and moral indignation following disasters greatly exacerbates the impact of the disaster as price discrimination and profiteering are impeded by strenuous police and military efforts targeting those evil doers responsible for price discrimination and profiteering. The original disaster may have been a storm or earthquake or warfare, but the actual cause of most subsequent casualties is usually the infrastructure disruption following this initial event. People die from the resulting lack of sanitation, clean water, fuel, food, shelter, security and medical services etc. Profiteering and price discrimination are the only mechanisms that effectively mitigate post disaster harm. Yet our mental models of appropriate social behaviour attribute the resulting harm to the very responses that most effectively mitigate. Almost the opposite outcome to what the models evolved to facilitate.

    There’s a similar phenomenon with paramedics attending casualties. Sometimes paramedics are attacked by casualties or those associated with the casualties on the assumption that whenever casualties are incurred it must therefore have been the fault of any strangers on the scene. (Usually involves recreational drugs which suppress higher level thinking.) Probably attacking any available stranger is a reasonable and effective assumption for our mental cheat models optimised for our ancestral environment. Not quite so useful in the modern era.



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  • 8
    This Is Not A Meme says:

    I don’t mean by all this that dualism as a hypothesis is thereby discredited….

    Sure it is. Dualism is dead. It is rejected by ancient and contemporary metaphysics. Dualism is used to falsify metaphysical assertions. We’ve had centuries of formal attempt to preserve it as a logical possibility, and it looks like Plantinga is the last to throw himself on that Sword, Praise Christ.

    Cheat sheets, I might just be reducing this to familiar terms, but it sounds like you are describing a kind of neural confabulation. Let’s say I sneeze and loose a neuron. That will not result in the loss of a memory, as the remaining information implies what was lost. If the data can be restored, why not drop it since it is implied? How much data can be dropped? How exact does the retrieval need to match? What data is relevant or essential?

    Then there is the creation of new data, hallucinations, negative hallucinations, fusiform functions, filling in blind-spots, possibly language processing involves a degree of creative confabulation or macro/chunk data sets. Spekanig pleruy form my igainmoiatn, I believe qualia emerges from this as a means of processing the data, a complex representation of interrelated and discreet phenomena. This is what I believe is lost in Philosophical Zombies

    What this means is that what I see, hear, smell, touch, taste, and all the rest of it, is essentially the outcome of a series of random guesses – note that the alleles produce the brain’s design specifications before the result meets the outside world – that were more useful in navigating the world, rather than being necessarily a perfect replica.

    I would throw out “random guesses” (though i do like the idea of process implied by it). Rather, it’s entirely arbitrary. Learning to distinguish objects occurs over time, trial and error, perhaps by Darwinistic means. If a persistent error is imposed on one’s perception, correction occurs in the realm of qualia. It’s whatever works, so it’s a selection process.

    I also really like this idea of economy you introduce here, especially as it applies to design. Again, this invokes the theme of Darwinism. Ultimately, the survival of a cognitive function relies upon its relation to reality, and I hope we all agree there is an external, indifferent reality. I have my nitpicking and conversions to my own set of familiar ideas, but I also like this idea as presented.



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  • 9
    canadian_right says:

    Monism is the metaphysics that says that all of reality can be reduced to “one substance of reality”. This is a wider umbrella that also covers “material realism”. All the evidence of modern science supports one physical reality which in turn rules out dualism.

    The brain never sees the “unseeable”. The brain sees the light that hits the retina. It then processes those signals into what you and me experience as sight. Converting two 2D pictures into one 3D picture is not impossible according to optics. Reverse Optics is a technique to observe how neurons and synapses are connected which has nothing to do with how our brain processes 3D images. The mathematics of optics does in fact explain exactly how a pair of 2D images can be combined to make one 3D image. You see different colours because the “cones” in your retina are sensitive to different frequencies of light.

    I had not heard of Steven Pinker’s “cheat sheet” before. While this theory sounds plausible, I can’t comment on how well it corresponds to reality. But I am sure this cheat sheet did not lead to a belief in dualism which arose because it was a very intuitive belief that also propped up a belief in in a non-material “soul”. Modern science has shown that consciousness is just another function of our material brains.

    I very much doubt that a brain hard-wired with a cheat-sheet favouring realistic materialism would be any more expensive than one favouring dualism. The moral revulsion some feel towards a soulless person are cultural, not hardwire into our brains. If they were hardwired I’d be revolted, but I’m not.

    Dualism as a hypothesis demands a belief in something supernatural so by definition it is not a scientific hypothesis.

    The cheat-sheet hypothesis is interesting, but what it needs is research, not interesting conversation, to determine if it is a good theory.



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  • 10
    OHooligan says:

    Fascinating topic, thanks Z for starting it. The extent to which we construct, rather than perceive, the world around us is something that I think surprises us when it comes to our attention. Optical illusions serve to highlight how much of what we think we are seeing, we are actually making up from stuff we assembled earlier, much of it in early childhood (using cheat sheets, to adopt the OP’s terminology). The ease with which our eyes (and the brains behind them) are deceived makes possible the artificial immersive experiences of movies and games, especially in 3D.

    Someone mentioned color being a property of matter, not just of our eyes and brains. Not really. If our hearing was as bad as our eyesight, we’d have no music, hearing only in the range of a single octave, and having only 3 none-too-accurate frequency detectors. All sound would be a blend of the 3 notes of a single chord. Not much scope for music there. Conversely, to some (imagined) visitors from elsewhere, equipped with electomagnetic perception akin to our audio perception, our TVs photos and movies would bear so little resemblance to the reality we think they represent that they might conclude it is some kind of abstract, symbolic or stylized artform. How could a blend of red and green radiation be confused with the sensation caused by seeing the pure yellow light of excited sodium atoms?

    So, the world around us is of our own construction. The richer the palette of early childhood experience, the richer that world. Also, from the genetic side, some people are better equipped to grow and use the pattern-matching, cheat-sheet composing organ that is the brain, just as some are better at building weight-lifting muscles.

    Just as we learn complex actions that become totally “automatic”, below the need for conscious intervention – walking, riding a bicycle, swimming, driving, and for some, flying, diving, playing musical instruments – so we also apply our catalog of cheat-sheets continuously to all our everyday activities, constructing second by second the consistent world around us, automatically and instantly compensating for changes in lighting and ambient noise from wind, clouds, traffic, whatever. And I expect this cheat-sheet model also applies to our perception of more complex entities, including the society we live in and the people we encounter. Consensus means having a similar collection of cheat sheets. Being different, marching to the beat of a different drum, autistic spectrum personalities, can perhaps be explained as having formed a different set of cheat sheets. Propaganda serves to install a standard set of government-approved cheat-sheets, not just telling folks what to believe, but also how to perceive.

    Orwell’s 1984: how many fingers am I holding up?

    I like the image of scientist as one who failed (or refused) to grow up. The extended childhood of our species is to me the best defining feature of our particular branch of evolution. Sorry, this comment wandered off on its own.



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  • 11
    QuestioningKat says:

    In reply to #11 by Smill:

    Hello, am not knowledgeable enough by far in science to be able to understand your post, but from what I grasp about it, I love the idea of cheat sheets, although I wish i’m not sure it’s really cheating, although I get the point. What’s everyone’s problem with dualism? Isn’t it something very useful?

    Please make certain you have the correct definition of dualism.



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  • 12
    QuestioningKat says:

    Yes Zeug, this is an interesting topic. I would appreciate a comment as to whether or not my post #2 is off in left field or not. No elaboration needed. Just an “it’s off because of X” will do. If you have sources to better understand “cheat sheets” please post them here.
    Thanks



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  • 13
    OHooligan says:

    In reply to #13 by QuestioningKat:
    On “cheat sheets”, I accepted what I took to be Z’s meaning: a shortcut to an answer, without going through the whole process, and without all the necessary information, but with a “good enough” probability of being “sufficiently accurate” for practical purposes. A Rule of Thumb. I probably used one of my cheat sheets to make myself think I understood what Z was talking about (even though I might not, completely).

    For examples that show the “cheat sheets” in action, I like optical illusions, especially the ones that have 2 different visual interpretations, and you can observe yourself flicking from one to the other. For example:

    this link

    I can switch between directions, though it sometimes takes a while to “click”. Once a direction is established, I keep on perceiving it that way unless I make an effort to change what I am seeing.

    In this carefully contrived illusion, there is no “right” answer, serving to show not that the eye/brain makes mistakes, but that it very cleverly and quickly fills in the gaps to present a “reality” that might or might not be correct, but is at least plausible, given what one already knows/has seen/has experienced/believes.

    I have no difficulty accepting that the same kind of thing goes on at every level in the rest of my perception too, I complete incomplete pictures, sounds, and more, using stuff I gathered earlier.



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  • 14
    OHooligan says:

    Q’Kat said:

    I would imagine that someone who was hyper aware and highly analytical to all details of life would be limited in social situations and less likely to respond quickly to dangerous situations.

    I refer you to Aldous Huxley’s “Doors of Perception”, in which he makes the case that the brain functions as a “reducing valve”, filtering sensory input and discarding most of it to produce a simple working model that we can make use of, and react to in a timely and sensible (survival-enhancing) manner. His experiments with hallucinogens he likened to cleaning the “doors” (I suppose they were doors with glass in them) to experience the raw input more directly. Certainly, a person under the influence of such substances is decidedly less able to cope with social or dangerous situations. The entertainment value (if that’s the right term) of hallucinogens lies partly in the hilarious (but sometimes terrifying) mistakes it makes with the “cheat-sheet” system.



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  • 15
    OHooligan says:

    Sorry, this was meant to be an edit, but it’s turned into a new post. Cant edit or delete the old one. Oops.

    Q’Kat said:

    I would imagine that someone who was hyper aware and highly analytical to all details of life would be limited in social situations and less likely to respond quickly to dangerous situations.

    I refer you to Aldous Huxley’s “Doors of Perception”, in which he makes the case that the brain functions as a “reducing valve”, filtering sensory input and discarding most of it to produce a simple working model that we use to react to in a timely and sensible (survival-enhancing) manner.

    His experiments with hallucinogens he likened to cleansing the “doors” (I suppose they were doors with glass in them) to experience the raw input more directly. Certainly, a person under the influence of such substances is decidedly less able to cope with social or dangerous situations.

    As I understand it, hallucinogens don’t bypass Huxley’s “reducing valve”, rather they disrupt neural activity causing the cheat-sheet system to make bizarre and outlandish mistakes. The “cheat sheets” idea seems to me to be a much better explanatory framework than the “reducing valve” idea.

    It certainly explains why some drugs can make one see things that aren’t there. Because we do that all the time anyway, just at a more plausible level. So, when someone acts or speaks in a way so far removed from your own worldview that you wonder if they are living on a different planet – well, perhaps they are!



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  • 16
    QuestioningKat says:

    I can switch between directions, though it sometimes takes a while to “click”. Once a direction is established, I keep on perceiving it that way unless I make an effort to change what I am seeing.

    Yeah, but can you draw the number six and rotate your foot clockwise?



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  • 17
    OHooligan says:

    In reply to #17 by QuestioningKat:

    I can switch between directions, though it sometimes takes a while to “click”. Once a direction is established, I keep on perceiving it that way unless I make an effort to change what I am seeing.

    Yeah, but can you draw the number six and rotate your foot clockwise?

    Of course. But how did YOU know about that? Ah, I see. Feline spies are everywhere, keeping tabs – or tabbies – on their human slaves. I now feel an overpowering urge to buy some fresh fish and leave it by an open window….



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  • 19
    OHooligan says:

    In reply to #20 by Smill:

    Hello, I’ve been reading ‘the illusion of beauty’ (N K Humphrey) online and for some reason it made me think about your ‘cheat sheet’ hypothesis. Have you read it? He writes that for animals, classification of external objects is necessary for survival, and that an ‘internal world model’ enables advance prediction…maybe I am not comparing like with like here. He does say some interesting things about aesthetics, though, and ‘visual rhyme’.

    Beauty is in the eye of the beholder.



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  • 20
    OHooligan says:

    Elsewhere I offhandedly said

    “Reality isn’t what you decide it is. Oh, wait, maybe it is. (See the “cheat-sheet” discussion).

    To which Z appears to have taken offence. None intended,and I don’t think I’m distorting your hypothesis, Z.

    By “decide” I don’t mean that the part of you that you make a conscious decision. More like an optical illusion, as I’ve referenced before, the illusion presents itself to your awareness already-decided, as an interpretation of sensory data.

    As I sit here, fingers on a keyboard, eyes focused on a screen, I can flick my gaze around the room. I can move my head and the changing sensations on my retina seem simply to confirm the continued existence of a stable 3 dimensional space around me, containing unmoving and familiar objects. Seeing the wall, I know the texture of its painted plasterboard surface, having touched it previously. The empty coffeecup I know well, though right now it’s appearance is decorated with shading consistent with it reflecting an image of the mouse and my cellphone, both sitting near it, something that I might never have seen before in that exact configuration.

    The Cheat Sheet Hypothesis contends that actually, normally, I hardly look at these things at all, just enough to notice that they’re there. My sensory apparatus, including a good deal of brain, use cheat sheets to come up with the end result, a consistent appearance of a world around me, in which I can act and move, usually without too much surprise or difficulty.

    In my first year of life, it was different. It was full of surprise, and difficulties to be overcome, and all the while I was learning to crawl, then walk, my brain – itself growing according to my DNA – was compiling its library of cheat sheets, learning how to see. So now, what I see is constructed – by eye and brain – from what I have seen before. New sights are still possible, and are rapidly siezed upon – etched into a kind of photographic memory sometimes – compared and contrasted with previous sights, sorted sifted and catalogued, integrated into the cheat-sheet repertoire, and available for reuse later, when, perhaps, I once more see something similar.

    In summary, my brain decides what to show “me”, and “I” then decide what to do about it. The dualism there is just between the “conscious” parts of me, and the rest, and is I expect the kind of dual perception that makes the notion of a “soul” so widespread. But cheat-sheets aren’t confined to perception, they can also take action. In politics you hear of a “knee-jerk reaction”, the automatic and unthinking predictable political response to some event. That would be a cheat sheet in operation.

    Unlike the annoying matters of “faith”, the Cheat Sheet Hypothesis is amenable to experiment. Perturb your brain chemistry and the reality around you can become markedly different. When the drugs wear off, the familiar reality returns. Explore the mechanisms within the cheat-sheet neurology with optical illusions, as has been done in countless perceptual psychology experiments. See images in clouds and inkblots. Observe your inbuilt facial-recognition circuitry misfire to show you faces everywhere, even when you know there aren’t any.

    Muse on the notion that perhaps the facial-recognition part has evolved to err on the side of caution by sometimes giving false positives, thereby avoiding the much more dangerous situation of failing to see a partly concealed enemy, or predator, and there’s little selection pressure to stop seeing a few extraneous faces. Too many, and your peers will consider you insane, to the likely detriment of your chances to pass on your genes. Unless you can convince them you’re a Visionary with a direct line to God, and should have first dibs on their daughters.

    Thank you Z for this topic, I see it as a kernel of wisdom around which a whole lot of stuff can fall into place, and make sense. No reason why a cheat sheet can’t be self-referential. Is there?



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  • 21
    Zeuglodon says:

    In reply to #2 by QuestioningKat:

    Is it a philosophical notion or would neurologists and neuroscientists agree that this is what consciousness actually is?

    Off the top of my memory, the Cambridge statement was made by several neuroscientists and declares that consciousness is the total activity of the brain. It is the case that, if you assume monism, you can explain the discoveries of neuroscience more parsimoniously than if you assume there’s a separate thing that just happens to coincide with brain activity. However, it is possible for monism to be disproved empirically if brain activity had no correlation with people’s reported experiences. This could be shown by some research into NDEs, which would establish cases of patients seeing things that ordinarily would be unavailable to their brains.

    Let me see if I understand you correctly in simplistic terms. Our brain interprets visual, tactile, auditory, etc. information by developing schema which allows the person to interpret what they see. Round, green with a stem, about 3 inches in diameter, a certain smell, speckled skin with a certain waxy feel —–It is a green apple. The brain makes a note of this grouping of information so that the next time you encounter a green apple, you no longer need to analyze each detail of it. It pulls out a shortcut that instantly says “green apple.”

    I’ll cut you off here because, while you’re right, this isn’t what I wanted you to take away from the OP. I wasn’t talking about how we learn about things and then acclimatize or habituate ourselves to these new concepts. I was more interested in instinctive knowledge rather than acquired knowledge. For instance, even if an individual has never encountered an apple, he or she already carries around an instinctive understanding of fruits, of plant-based foods, and of food-you-collect-and-gather more generally, which leaps out when the individual finally encounters a fruit and has to learn the specifics.

    I’ll use language as an example, since it gets the point across better. Every baby has to develop schemas about the local language it will have to speak, and this follows the course you outline: it picks up features of the language its peers use, and develops schemas on how this bit of language works in the home as opposed to a library or a daycare centre, what’s a noun and what’s a verb, how to conjugate “do” as opposed to “attempt” or “try”. Over time, it gets easier for the child to understand its own language until it becomes an effortless practice, and the child has habituated to the demands of, say, Spanish or Mandarin.

    What I’m interested in, however, is the Language Instinct that makes all this possible in the first place. Steven Pinker develops the idea more thoroughly in the book of the same name, but his point in brief is that our language learning requires a built-in knowledge of languages in order to make that learning possible. You can’t just take it for granted that humans understand languages and then concentrate exclusively on cultural differences in languages and language schemas, nor can you let the brain’s habituation abilities go unexamined.

    The cheat sheet concept is basically this: that the knowledge was the result of natural selection streamlining the information content in the brain, which was created from nothing by the mutations of the genes involved. Jos Gibbons was right to criticize me for describing it as random, since the mutations that fuelled that natural selection doesn’t necessarily have to be random so long as the variation is there, but the fact is that the genes that first led to the creation of those instincts did work at random as opposed to being lawfully shaped by outside forces. Natural selection selected the few that were useful, usually but not always those ones that were most truthful.

    That means that our instincts aren’t necessarily gateways to the truth. They could just as easily be local truths – for instance, our instinctive understanding of “impetus” works only in an environment with an atmosphere to provide friction but not on the moon or in deep space – or useful approximations. They might even be simple tools for the brain to deal with rather than accurate models, like our instinctive assumption that there’s a spirit in the brain, which originated from our simplified model of other people’s minds.

    but because a brain closer to monism – i.e. one that treated brains as hypercomplex machinery and attended to all the more accurate details of neuroscience – would have been more expensive to produce, and rival brain designs that were more economical happened to be selected for.

    I would imagine that someone who was hyper aware and highly analytical to all details of life would be limited in social situations and less likely to respond quickly to dangerous situations. There would probably be less of a spontaneous flow of interacting with the world and others. Instead of running from the sound of rustling in the grass, the hyper aware, analytical person would spend more time contemplating on what all the possibilities of the sound could be. Standing there staring at the grasses with out grouped information of the cause….unless the person lived safely in a group, they were probably picked off from the gene pool.

    Well, body economy had a lot to do with it, I suspect – a brain can’t have even a decent neuroscientific database without eating a huge chunk of memory – but I think it’s also the fact that natural selection chooses the useful devices first, and accurate ones only as a bonus. That’s why we have excellent colour vision but no innate ability to detect heat signatures or radio waves – not because our brains couldn’t handle the information, but because it wouldn’t have done our ancestors any good to have these abilities.

    It’s not that monism is impossible to put in a human brain – obviously, otherwise there’d be no monists – but, that being the case, why wasn’t it? The brain of one person can’t literally see the circuitry of another’s, and so can’t predict their behaviour directly. Superficially, another human seems to be animated by an unpredictable force all its own, so the brain has the task of predicting and dealing with what it can’t see. Without an expensive MRI, it’s impossible to get information of someone else’s brain states directly.

    Enter the cheat sheet. The human brain has built-in, simplified assumptions about other brains that works well enough to score above chance, but which isn’t automatically accurate. Natural selection recruits it because those individuals that have this cheat sheet perform better than those individuals that have alternative models that aren’t so useful. And that mutated gene or series of mutated genes couldn’t have known about other brains any better than their host could. The brain that results from this mutation has essentially been handed a guess that may or may not work.

    Of course, it does work, and natural selection favours it. But at no point does the brain have to be scientifically accurate. Its cheat sheet only has to be useable.

    I hope you won’t consider it rude if I skip the next part of your post. This is not because I disagree with it, but because the changing attitudes you describe don’t strike me as being relevant to this particular discussion. While I do wonder about individuals that go against their intuitions, it must be stressed that they do this with recourse to other instincts, and frequently in spite of the insistence of the unwanted instincts. I’m as much a monist as one could get, and I still find it instinctively easy to understand what people are getting at when they describe a person’s soul or spirit. This does depend on how much of the knowledge is instinctive as opposed to cultural, of course.

    As for source, I largely got the idea from Pinker’s other book, How The Mind Works, though in that context he was describing our ability to perform “reverse optics”. I briefly alluded to this in the OP.

    I hope my reply here will make up somewhat for my disgraceful tardiness in giving it, and I apologize for having to make you wait so long for it.



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  • 22
    ClayFerguson says:

    I looked up the “cheat sheet” reference in Pinker’s book. Frankly it is a poor explanation of what his point had to have been (based on context) to use that term. I would have use the term “short cuts”. He’s saying your brain isn’t working the way it would ‘strictly’ have to work to ‘strictly’ solve a given problem. For example, when you go skeet shooting, your mind is ‘solving’ in realtime lots of very complex mathematical formulas to calculate and predict the location of the projectile right ? Wrong. Your brain is doing what is commonly called “muscle memory” (even when not talking about actual muscle) today, meaning your brain solves problems in whatever way it first learned to. Once those naural pathways have gotten ‘connected up’ thru learning, you merely only have to think the FIRST thought (neuron firing pattern, to be clear), and it sets up a ‘chain reaction’ of axon to dendrite electrical flows that proceed quite on their own, without effort. It’s distinctly different from instinct, which is a hard-wired aspect of brain anatomy. In any even “Chan Reaction” or “Short cuts” would be better wording in my opinion.



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  • 23
    ThinkingJohn says:

    Thanks for this intriguing post Zeuglodon. A couple points…

    First, wholesale monism is a slippery claim because, while it may account for the subject/object structure within the brains representational scheme, it leaves open the question of the subject/object relation to the representational scheme itself. Don’t get me wrong, I understand that you are claiming these are identical; consciousness (the self,subject, what-its-like-to-be, sentience and so forth) simply IS this representational distinction– but the mental events that are generated by brain activity– including all thoughts, sensations, abstractions, as well as the the representational scheme that maps the subject and object– all occur within a field of consciousness. It’s the subject/object relation between consciousness and mental content– what Chalmers called “the hard problem of consciousness”– that needs to be explained.

    If we accept this, then we’ve acknowledged some kind of distinction between consciousness and content. This yields a position that’s sometimes called “type B materialism”: consciousness is a property generated by– and explicable in terms of–brain activity, but is nonetheless distinct property. Importantly, this avoids the interaction problem of dualism by remaining agnostic as to what kind of property consciousness is (physical, emmegent, epiphenomenal, etc) yet it firmly asserts consciousness as a unique and unreduced property.

    So the implication for your claim here is subtle– the evolved generate-and-test hypotheses you are positing may absolutely be at the root of the representational scheme the brain implements. They may even be related to the generation of consciousness– but the experience OF this scheme as mental content within the field of consciousness remains an open question. [Link to own blog removed by moderator]

    Thanks!



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